Entrepreneurs: Najla Al Midfa, General Manager, Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre

“Sometimes quotas are the only way to instigate change,” says Najla Al Midfa, general manager of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre.

She says temporary quotas are the way forward in boosting women’s participation in business, writes Ben Flanagan

In 2003, Norway became the first country in the world to impose a gender quota, requiring listed firms to raise the proportion of women on their boards to 40 percent. And in the UAE, at least 20 percent of the candidates for a listed company’s board should be women.

She says that quotas can be a positive force. “That’s a fair thing to do to be honest. As I temporary measure I absolutely support quotas,” she told Benchmark in an interview.

“At this stage, if we haven’t seen that change and if it’s not happening, sometimes quotas are the only way to instigate the change, and I would be absolutely for it as a temporary measure. And until you get to the point where it’s normal to have that gender balance, and the gender equality – then you can remove the quotas.”

1

The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre – also know as Sheraa, or ‘sail’ in Arabic – which launched under the patronage of Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), commenced operations in January 2016.

It runs a co-working space and three-month accelerator programmes, which began in October this year, to help foster start-up businesses.

Here Ms Al Midfa, who is Emirati and lives in Sharjah, explained how she plans to introduce quotas in an effort to boost the participation of women in the entrepreneur boot-camps run by Sheraa.

How would you describe the women’s participation in Sheraa’s activities?

We are based here at the university city, and when you look at the student population. We certainly are seeing many more women in higher education. Our personal experience here at Sheraa is that women are the ones who tend to step up first when we hold the inspirational events, when we have academic workshops, for example to teach new skills.

Where we would like to see women step up more is in taking that idea and having the confidence to take it forward and make it into a business. That is where we see a few women start to drop out and this is where we are there as a platform, to really help and empower and support them to take that leap of faith.

Sheraa has received more than 100 applications for its first accelerator programme, which launches this month. How many were from women?

3

Women are in the minority, it’s less than 50 percent for sure. I look at some of the pre-accelerator programmes that we have had and I would say that it’s 25 percent women and 75 percent men. Whereas if we look at the inspirational events and the talks and the workshops that we have, those are more like 80 percent women.

It’s very interesting – it’s almost a reflection of society when you think about it: More women in education, but then not enough women in leadership, or not as many as there should be. So again, we need to provide this support network, and we do need to provide this platform.

And specifically, yes, we are looking to encourage women. We do do special events that target the young women, we try to bring in as many female role models as we can as well, to show that there are success stories out there – and show them what’s possible.

It’s certainly not an issue confined to any one country. Why do you think we have this situation?

There are issues on both sides. I think women themselves need to be given the confidence and I think there is something internal in women that we need to change this mind-set, this hesitation that we have. Part of the issue is the women themselves, but part of it is also just systemic in terms of society and employers not doing enough to empower and support the women.

Is there anything else you are doing to encourage more women to take part in Sheraa initiatives?

The fact that the organisation is chaired by a very strong female role model certainly helps – Sheikha Bodour. We do try and spend more time on the women’s university campuses speaking to them. We need to actively seek out the women: It’s not as simple as putting up a poster and just expecting women to apply. We actually need to go and… gently pull them into the fold of entrepreneurship.

2

Do you see Norway-style quotas idea coming into play in the kind of businesses you work with?

We should walk the talk at Sheraa. And we should set a quota. At Sheraa itself we are a team of nine and there’s only one guy on the team – not by design at all, we are finding much more talent amongst women. But in terms of the accelerator companies, I think we should set a target for ourselves to have at least 20 or 30 percent of the companies that we select to be women-led. Otherwise, if we go with the easier answers, nothing will change.